Cleopatra’s Androgynous Nature: The Combination of Feminine, Natural Love and Masculine Passion

Cleopatra embodies a combination of different traits of masculinity and femininity. She is the quintessential nurturing woman who has several masculine traits (Verma 838). Benjamin T. Spencer describes Cleopatra’s paradoxical charm: “She defies the withering process of age; she makes her victims hungrier even as she satisfies their appetites; her very wantonness is so becoming that it is blessed by the holy priests” (375). Her traits of both motherly, natural love and masculine, lustful passion in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra are demonstrated through the contrast between Cleopatra’s masculine obsession with status and war and her natural feminine and motherly attributes. Both her masculinity and femininity unite in her death. These traits can be seen by studying Cleopatra’s discussions with her ladies, the messenger, and the clown in Acts one through five, as well as from the effects that her masculinity and femininity have on Antony by looking at Caesar, Philo, and Pompey’s descriptions and criticisms of him in Acts one and two. The unification of both Cleopatra’s masculine and feminine traits are seen in Cleopatra’s suicide in Act five.

Neither Antony nor Cleopatra was willing to give up their masculine political status for their love of each other, because without it, they would have been seen as lesser in the others’ eyes. Unlike a modern love story in which the tragedy would probably be the inability of the lovers to find what they were looking for in each other, Shakespeare’s lovers need status and honor in order to maintain value to each other (Moore 652). Cleopatra’s masculine nobility (most rulers were men during 30 B.C.) impresses Antony, while her feminine seduction seals the deal. John Rees Moore explains that “the masculine world [of Antony and Cleopatra] is essentially loveless: men struggle for power either by force or trickery, and no one is to be trusted” (648). As a woman, Cleopatra has established herself as the ruler of Egypt, using manipulation to get her way and by not trusting anyone, not even Antony. She tells Charmian in Act I, scene three: “See where [Antony] is, who’s with him, what he does./ I did not send you: if you find him sad,/ Say I am dancing, if in mirth, report/ That I am sudden sick” (3-7).1 Cleopatra’s technique to captivating Antony is to manipulate—she dances when he is sad, and fakes illness when he is happy. However, Antony also has power over Cleopatra. During his return to Rome, she is overtaken with jealousy. She must know all the details about Octavia to make sure that she herself is still higher in status: “Report the feature of Octavia: her years,/ Her inclination, let him not leave out/ The colour of her hair… Bring me word how tall she is” (II.v.135-141). Cleopatra demands that she know Octavia’s age, her will with Antony, as well as word of her beauty. Cleopatra’s insecurities show that she truly doesn’t trust anyone, showing her embodiment of the “masculine world” where one with power must be apprehensive of others.  

Cleopatra’s masculinity is the cause of Antony’s shift from his passion of war to his passion of Cleopatra. In Roman society, women were out of sight and out of mind as soon as more important things, such as war, arose. However, love and war, though opposed to each other, are much alike. Moore says, “Both demand an inspired commitment that goes beyond rational calculation, a warm impulsiveness that indeed scorns and laughs at the cautious warnings of ‘policy’” (648). These similarities of irrationality and impulsiveness of war and passion must have attracted Antony to Cleopatra as we come to understand Antony’s original passion for battle. Ironically, their sexual and dynastic union even lead to war (Streete 423). Philo describes Antony’s shift in the first lines of Act one, scene one:

This dotage of our general’s

O’erflows the measure: those his goodly eyes,

That o’er the files and musters of the war

Have glowed like plated Mars, now bend, now turn

The office and devotion of their view

Upon a tawny front. His captain’s heart,

Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst

The buckles on his breast, reneges all temper

And is become the bellows and the fan

To cool a gipsy’s lust. (1-10)

 In Roman context, the word “heart” refers to manly courage, but for Egyptians, “heart” is understood as the “seat of love or affection” (Hall 64). Antony’s foolish Egyptian affection overflows what is acceptable in Roman terms—Antony’s vision that was once set on war and glowed from the reflection of the armor of his men has skewed to look upon Cleopatra. The masculine courage of Antony’s performance in battle, reinforced with Philo’s use of the words “buckles” and “burst,” is now degenerating as his heart is downgraded to an appliance to cool and inflame Cleopatra’s passions (64). Antony and Cleopatra’s love affair, dismissed as merely lust, is granted no real status by the Romans. Joan Hall says, “In the Roman scheme of things, ‘heart’ serves military or political ends, and great leaders must not, as Octavius Caesar so pragmatically observes, ‘pawn their experience to their present pleasure’ (I.iv.32)” (64). The military idea of “heart,” or leadership, must supersede the Egyptian ideal of “heart,” or emotional and sexual ties to a woman (65). However, the Romans are unable to understand Cleopatra’s passion as it relates to war, and why Antony is drawn to her: “Her ability to subdue the stoutest warrior to her ends is an Eastern corruption that threatens the Western ideal of imperial manhood” (Moore 648). The Roman characters, who are conditioned to a firm, legalistic, and rational world, are confounded by the mysterious Egyptian (Spencer 374). Cleopatra’s combination of femininity and masculinity intimidates them.

Though Cleopatra’s masculinity is threatening to the Roman idea of manhood, Cleopatra also demonstrates her natural urge of motherliness as a woman, and her natural love carries over to her relationship with Antony. When Pompey speaks of plucking the “ne’er-lust-wearied Antony” from the “lap of Egypt’s widow” (II.ii.43-44), he means that separating Antony from Cleopatra is like weaning a child away from the lap of his mother (Verma 846). Associations with mother and child are also present in Antony’s speech to her after following her ship in the battle of Actium:

Egypt, thou knew’st too well

My heart was to the rudder tied by th’strings

And thou shouldst tow me after. O’er my spirit

Thy full supremacy thou knew’st, and that

Thy beck might from the bidding of the gods

Command me. (III.xii.60-65)

  Antony’s mind was reduced to that of a child blindly following his mother. He had given up all of what he knew of masculine battle to follow Cleopatra, no matter what the consequences. The mother-son relationship is also seen when Antony is under the impression that Cleopatra betrayed him in battle in Act four (Verma 846). Antony seems to experience his own loss of identity due to Cleopatra’s unpredictability. He panics, saying that he “cannot hold [his] visible shape” (IV.xiv.17). He is dissolving, discandying as if it were the end of the world (Streete 424). Cleopatra’s behavior threatens to destroy Antony’s inner certainty as he feels that he cannot be strong without her (Verma 846). However, after this brief moment of panic over this loss of natural love, his certainty is restored by the knowledge that Cleopatra has not strayed from him, and he is able to retain his basic trust in life (846). In the end, he attempted to die an honorable Roman death, but could not succeed without ending his life near Cleopatra, his source of both natural, feminine love, and masculine passion.

Like Antony, Cleopatra also dies a masculine, honorable death, but does so in a feminine way in which both traits are unified in her suicide. Her masculinity and femininity fluctuate back and forth, one after the other until her final moment of death in which they are fused. One of her reasons for wanting to commit suicide is so that she will be remembered in a noble way, not captivated in Caesar’s victory march. She explains to her ladies, “The quick comedians/ Extemporally will stage us and present/ Our Alexandrian revels: Antony/ Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see/ Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness/ I’th’posture of a whore” (V.ii.256-261). Cleopatra wanted to keep her status after her death, and was afraid that if she was to be captured by Caesar, she would be later imitated by young boys that could do no justice to both her masculine power as a ruler and her feminine beauty in portraying her as a prostitute. In Act four, Cleopatra resolved to end her life in the high Roman fashion to keep her status and honor, yet confesses herself to be but “e’en a woman” like “the maid that milks/ And does the meanest chares” (IV.xv.86-87). However, though she spoke of herself as merely a woman in Act four, in Act five her masculinity resurfaces as she tells the guardsman, “I have nothing/ Of woman in me: now from head to foot/ I am marble-constant” (V.ii.282-284). She says that she has not the “fluctuating traits” of a female at all, but is “marble-constant,” a Roman way of perceiving themselves: hard and solid like a statue or building (Crane 7).2 But then, in her final moment of death, her masculine and feminine sides both surface together as she dies proudly like a Roman, yet like a queen in royal robes (Spencer 377).  

The way in which Cleopatra commits suicide connects both traits of both sexuality and natural love. The entire event of her suicide is erotic from the time the clown introduces the asps until after her death.  She speaks numerous puns on the words “lie,” “die” and “honest” in her discussion with the clown about the snakes in Act five, scene two that justifies regarding the worm as a symbol of sexual relations (294-314) (Hymel 2). The clown makes a sexual reference to a woman as “a dish for the gods if the devil dress her not,” also referencing the snake as “joy” and a “worm” that have phallic undertones (295-313) (Kinghorn 107). The juxtaposition of the snake and fig is another example, as The Sacred Fig Tree was held in special veneration as an emblem of life—combining both masculine and feminine attributes. It has three leaves, representing the masculine triad, which became symbolic in covering sculptured representations of nude figures, while the fruit represented the female counterpart (107).4 Cleopatra also likens the “stroke of death” to “a lover’s pinch/ Which hurts and is desired,” which contains sexual undertones with the word “stroke,” “pinch” and “desire” (V.ii.331-332). Also, the clown says that the same snake that has “very good report” and is expected to bring “joy” is “not to be trusted but in the keeping of wise people,” also possessing “no goodness” (290-315). These descriptions of the asp define the very idea of Cleopatra to the Romans, as they believed her to be untrustworthy and corrupting of Antony’s Roman masculinity (Hymel 2-3). Keeping this in mind, the asp represents Antony himself, and in nursing the asp, Cleopatra shows her motherly, natural love for him as she follows him into the next realm. However, she places the next asp to her arm to complete her suicide, a body part that represents strength and masculinity. In her death, both ideas of her feminine and masculine traits are brought together. Even Caesar acknowledges the power and poetry in Cleopatra’s androgynous death:  “she looks like sleep,/ As she would catch another Antony/ In her strong toil of grace” (V.ii.395-397). She achieved a death that left her still looking feminine and desirable as Caesar comments that the dead Cleopatra looks only asleep, and like she could still arouse male desire (Kinghorn 106). She has died a noble, Roman, masculine death, but has done it in such a way as to keep her feminine beauty.

Cleopatra’s androgynous traits of both motherly, natural love and masculine passion are present throughout Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, eventually brought together in her poetic Roman and queenly death. She loved Antony with both natural love and passion, the reason for which he was first attracted and remained infatuated. Her love reminded him of his previous passion—war—while their love both started war, and ended it.  John Reese Moore says, “When you die you die. That’s all right as long as you’ve lived first—and living means using everything you’ve got to the fullest” (665). Cleopatra gave all of herself to Antony and was able to save her masculine honor by killing herself by Roman means, ultimately enabling her to die for the most Egyptian and feminine motive—love.

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About Katie Hargrave

A post-sport athlete, Weight Loss Coach, Holistic Health Coach, and Personal Trainer trying to become the healthiest version of herself and guide others in their journey.
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